Jun 182014

Democracy in Action

I went to our local high school gym last night to vote for a smallish ($12mm) school bond issue as well as another proposition I didn’t quite understand about paying for fire alarms in the schools. As is always the case in New York, I was somewhere between amused and appalled that the voting machines are pre-war vintage (possibly Civil, definitely WWI).

But this election was a new experience for me. When I finished voting, I ran into a friend of ours who is on the school board, and he suggested I stick around because the polls were closing, and I’d get to hear the results.

This picture is how the results were tabulated. A woman with a whiteboard yelled across the gym to each of three other volunteers, who yelled back the numbers from each of the three machines. Hand tabulation in 2014. I’m glad the vote wasn’t close!

Voting

Why exactly are we not all voting on the internet by now?

Jun 052014

Book short: Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

Book short:  Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

One of the best things I can say about Remote: Office Not Required,  by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, is that it was short.  That sounds a little harsh – part of what I mean is that business books are usually WAY TOO LONG to make their point, and this one was blessedly short.  But the book was also a little bit of an angry rant against bad management wrapped inside some otherwise good points about remote management.

The book was a particularly interesting read juxtaposed against Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last which I just finished recently and blogged about here, which stressed the importance of face-to-face and in-person contact in order for leaders to most effectively do their jobs and stay in touch with the needs of their organizations.

The authors of Remote, who run a relatively small (and really good) engineering-oriented company, have a bit of an extreme point of view that has worked really well for their company but which, at best, needs to be adapted for companies of other sizes, other employee types, and other cultures.  That said, the flip side of their views, which is the “everyone must be at their cubicle from 9 to 5 each day,” is even dumber for most businesses these days.  As usual with these things, the right answer is probably somewhere in between the extremes, and I was reminded of the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go farm go together” when I read it.  Different target outcomes, different paths.

I totally agree with the authors around their comments about trusting employees and “the work is what matters.”  And we have a ton of flexibility in our work at Return Path.  With 400 people in the company, I personally spend six weeks over the summer working largely remote, and I value that time quite a bit.  But I couldn’t do it all the time.  We humans learn from each other better and treat each other better when we look at each other face to face.  That’s why, with the amount of remote work we do, we strongly encourage the use of any form of video conferencing at all times.  The importance of what the authors dismiss as “the last 1 or 2% of high fidelity” quality to the conversation is critical.  Being in person is not just about firing and hiring and occasional sync up, it’s about managing performance and building relationships.

Remote might have been better if the authors had stressed the value that they get out of their approach more than ranting against the approaches of others.  While there are serious benefits of remote work in terms of cost and individual productivity (particularly in maker roles), there are serious penalties to too much of it as well in terms of travel, communication burden, misunderstandings, and isolation.  It’s not for everyone.

Thanks to my colleague Hoon Park for recommending this to me.  When I asked Hoon what his main takeaway from the book was, he replied:

The importance of open communication that is archived (thus searchable), accessible (transparent and open to others) and asynchronous (doesn’t require people to be in the same place or even the same “timespace”).  I love the asynchronous communication that the teams in Austin have tried: chatrooms, email lists (that anyone can subscribe to or read the archives of), SaaS project management tools. Others I would love to try or take more advantage of include internal blogs (specifically the P2 and upcoming O2 WordPress themes; http://ma.tt/2009/05/how-p2-changed-automattic/), GitHub pull requests (even for non-code) and a simple wiki.

These are great points, and good examples of the kinds of systems and processes you need to have in place to facilitate high quality, high volume remote work.

May 222014

The 90-Day Reverse Review

The 90-Day Reverse Review

Like a lot of companies, Return Path does a 90-day review on all new employees to make sure they’re performing well, on track, and a good fit.  Sometimes those reviews are one-way from the manager, sometimes they are 360s.

But we have also done something for years now called the 90-Day Reverse Review, which is equally valuable.  Around the same 90-day mark, and unrelated to the regular review process, every new employee gets 30 minutes with a member of the Executive Committee (my direct reports, or me if the person is reporting to someone on my team) where the employee has a chance to give US feedback on how WE are doing.

These meetings are meant to be pretty informal, though the exec running the meeting takes notes and circulates them afterwards.  We have a series of questions we typically ask, and we send them out ahead of time so the employee can prepare.  They are things like:

-Was this a good career move?  Are you happy you’re here?

-How was your onboarding experience?

-How do you explain your job to people outside the company?

-What is the company’s mission, and how does your role contribute to it?

-How do you like your manager?  Your team?

-Do you feel connected to the company?  How is the company’s information flow?

-What has been your proudest moment/accomplishment so far?

-What do you like best about the company?

-If you could wave a wand and change something here, what would it be?

We do these for a few reasons:

-At the 90-day mark, new employees know enough about the company to give good input, and they are still fresh enough to see the company through the lens of other places they’ve worked

-These are a great opportunity for executives to have a “Moment of Truth” with new employees

-They give employees a chance to productively reflect on their time so far and potentially learn something or make some course correction coming out of it

-We always learn things, large or small, that are helpful for us as a management team, whether something needs to be modified with our Onboarding program, or whether we have a problem with a manager or a team or a process, or whether there’s something great we can steal from an employee’s past experiences

This is a great part of our Operating System at Return Path!

May 082014

Book Short: Like Reading a Good Speech

Book Short:  Like Reading a Good Speech

Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek, is a self-described “polemic” that reads like some of the author’s famous TED talks and other speeches in that it’s punchy, full of interesting stories, has some attempted basis in scientific fact like Gladwell, and wanders around a bit.  That said, I enjoyed the book, and it hit on a number of themes in which I am a big believer – and it extended and shaped my view on a couple of them.

Sinek’s central concept in the book is the Circle of Safety, which is his way of saying that when people feel safe, they are at their best and healthiest.  Applied to workplaces, this isn’t far off from Lencioni’s concept of the trust foundational layer in his outstanding book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  His stories and examples about the kinds of things that create a Circle of Safety at work (and the kinds of things that destroy them) were very poignant.  Some of his points about how leaders set the tone and “eat last,” both literally and figuratively, are solid.  But his most interesting vignettes are the ones about how spending time face-to-face in person with people as opposed to virtually are incredibly important aspects of creating trust and bringing humanity to leadership.

My favorite one-liner from the book, which builds on the above point and extends it to a corporate philosophy of people first, customer second, shareholders third (which I have espoused at Return Path for almost 15 years now) is

Customers will never love a company unless employees love it first.

A couple of Sinek’s speeches that are worth watching are the one based on this book, also called Leaders Eat Last, and a much shorter one called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

Bottom line:  this is a rambly book, but the nuggets of wisdom in it are probably worth the exercise of having to find them and figure out how to connect them (or not connect them).

Thanks to my fellow NYC CEO Seth Besmertnik for giving me this book as well as the links to Sinek’s speeches.

 

Apr 242014

Breaking New Ground on Transparency

Breaking New Ground on Transparency

I’ve written a lot over time about our Live 360 process for senior leaders in the business.  (This post is a good one, and it links to a couple earlier ones that are good, as well.)  We take a lot of pride in feedback and in transparency at Return Path, and after 15 years, even for an innovative business, it’s unusual that we do something big for the first time around people.  But we did today.

This image is of something never seen before at our company.  It’s my own handwritten notes about my own Live 360.

360 notes

It’s never been seen before, because no one has ever been physically present for his or her own review before.  In previous reviews, my Board, my exec team, and a few skip-levels gather in a room for 90 minutes with a facilitator to discuss my performance and behaviors.  Then the facilitator would go away and write up notes, and discuss them with me, then I’d produce a development plan.

Today, we decided to experiment with having me sit in my own review to add to the transparency and directness of the feedback.  My only role was to listen, ask (non-judgmental) clarifying questions, and take notes.  I left the room at the end in case someone wanted to say something without me hearing it directly, but although the conversation about the business continued, it didn’t sound like there was anything material about me that surfaced.

It was a little awkward at first, and it was interesting that some people addressed me directly while others spoke of me in the third person.  But once we got past that, the experience was incredibly powerful for me.  The first part — the “what do you appreciate about Matt” part — was humbling and embarrassing and gratifying all at the same time.

The meat of the review, though — the “how can we coach Matt on areas where he needs development” — was amazing.  I got great insights into a couple of major areas of work that I need to do, and that we need to do as a business.  I’m guessing I would have gotten them out of reading a summary of the review conversation, but hearing the texture of the conversation was much, much richer than reading a sanitized version of it on paper.  As always with reviews, there was the odd comment or two that annoyed me, but I felt like I handled them well without any defensive body language or facial expressions.

I will, as I’ve always done, post my development plan to my blog after I formulate it over the course of the next few weeks.  But for now, I just want to thank my Board and team for their awesomely constructive feedback and for helping us usher in a new era of increased transparency here.

Apr 102014

Understanding the Drivers of Success

Understanding the Drivers of Success

Although generally business is great at Return Path  and by almost any standard in the world has been consistently strong over the years, as everyone internally knows, the second part of 2012 and most of 2013 were not our finest years/quarters.  We had a number of challenges scaling our business, many of which have since been addressed and improved significantly.

When I step back and reflect on “what went wrong” in the quarters where we came up short of our own expectations, I can come up with lots of specific answers around finer points of execution, and even a few abstracted ones around our industry, solutions, team, and processes.  But one interesting answer I came up with recently was that the reason we faltered a bit was that we didn’t clearly understand the drivers of success in our business in the 1-2 years prior to things getting tough.  And when I reflect back on our entire 14+ year history, I think that pattern has repeated itself a few times, so I’m going to conclude there’s something to it.

What does that mean?  Well, a rising tide — success in your company — papers over a lot of challenges in the business, things that probably aren’t working well that you ignore because the general trend, numbers, and success are there.  Similarly, a falling tide — when the going gets a little tough for you — quickly reveals the cracks in the foundation.

In our case, I think that while some of our success in 2010 and 2011 was due to our product, service, team, etc. — there were two other key drivers.  One was the massive growth in social media and daily deal sites (huge users of email), which led to more rapid customer acquisition and more rapid customer expansion coupled with less customer churn.  The second was the fact that the email filtering environment was undergoing a change, especially at Gmail and Yahoo, which caused more problems and disruption for our clients’ email programs than usual — the sweet spot of our solution.

While of course you always want to make hay while the sun shines, in both of these cases, a more careful analysis, even WHILE WE WERE MAKING HAY, would have led us to the conclusion that both of those trends were not only potentially short-term, but that the end of the trend could be a double negative — both the end of a specific positive (lots of new customers, lots more market need), and the beginning of a BROADER negative (more customer churn, reduced market need).

What are we going to do about this?  I am going to more consistently apply one of our learning principles, the Post-Mortem  -THE ART OF THE POST-MORTEM, to more general business performance issues instead of specific activities or incidents.  But more important, I am going to make sure we do that when things are going well…not just when the going gets tough.

What are the drivers of success in your business?  What would happen if they shifted tomorrow?

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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Mar 262014

Book Short: Internet Fiction

Book Short:  Internet Fiction

It’s been a long time since I read Tom Evslin’s Hackoff.com, which Tom called a “blook” since he released it serially as a blog, then when it was all done, as a bound book.  Mariquita and I read it together and loved every minute of it.  One post I wrote about it at the time was entitled Like Fingernails on a Chalkboard.

The essence of that post was “I liked it, but the truth of the parts of the Internet bubble that I lived through were painful to read,” applies to two “new” works of Internet fiction that I just plowed through this week, as well.

Uncommon Stock

Eliot Pepper’s brand new startup thriller, Uncommon Stock, was a breezy and quick read that I enjoyed tremendously. It’s got just the right mix of reality and fantasy in it. For anyone in the tech startup world, it’s a must read. But it would be equally fun and enjoyable for anyone who likes a good juicy thriller.

Like my memory of Hackoff, the book has all kinds of startup details in it, like co-founder struggles and a great presentation of the angel investor vs. VC dilemma. But it also has a great crime/murder intrigue that is interrupted with the book’s untimely ending.  I eagerly await the second installment, promised for early 2015.

The Circle

While not quite as new, The Circle  has been on my list since it came out a few months back and since Brad’s enticing review of it noted that:

The Circle  was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony”… We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.

So here’s the scoop on this book.  Picture Google, Twitter, Facebook, and a few other companies all rolled up into a single company.  Then picture everything that could go wrong with that company in terms of how it measures things, dominates information flow, and promotes social transparency in the name of a new world order.  This is Internet dystopia at its best – and it’s not more than a couple steps removed from where we are.  So fiction…but hardly science fiction.

The Circle  is a lot longer than Uncommon Stock and quite different, but both are enticing reads if you’re up for some internet fiction.

 

Mar 202014

Secrets to Yawn-Free Board Meetings

Secrets to Yawn-Free Board Meetings

[This post first appeared as an article in Entrepreneur Magazine as part of a new series I'm publishing there in conjunction with my book, Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business]

The objective of board meetings should always be to have great conversations that help you and your executive team think clearly about the issues in front of you, as well as making sure your directors have a clear and transparent view of the state of the business. These conversations come from a team dynamic that encourages productive conflict. There’s no sure-fire formula for achieving this level of engagement, but here are three few guidelines you can follow to increase your chances.

Schedule board meetings in advance, and forge a schedule that works. Nothing is more disruptive – or more likely to drive low turnout – than last minute scheduling. Make sure you, or your executive assistant, knows board members’ general schedules and travel requirements, and whether they manage their own calendar or have their own executive assistant. Set your board meeting schedule for the year in the early fall, which is typically when people are mapping out most of their year’s major activities. If you know that one of your board members has to travel for your meetings, work with the CEOs of the other companies to coordinate meeting dates. Vary the location of meetings if you have directors in multiple geographies so travel is a shared sacrifice.

In the startup stage of our business at Return Path, we ran monthly meetings for an hour, mostly call-in. In the revenue stage, we moved to six to eight meetings per year, two hours in length, perhaps supplemented with two longer-form and in-person meetings. As a growth stage company, we run quarterly meetings. They’re all in-person, meaning every director is expected to travel to every meeting. We probably lose one director each time to a call-in or a no-show for some unavoidable conflict, but, for the most part, everyone is present. We leave four hours for every meeting (it’s almost impossible to get everything done in less time than that) and sometimes we need longer.

Many years, we also hold a board offsite, which is a meeting that runs across 24 hours, usually an afternoon, a dinner, and a morning, and is geared to recapping the prior year and planning out the next year together. It’s especially exhausting to do these meetings, and I’m sure it’s especially exhausting to attend them, but they’re well worth it. The intensity of the sessions, discussion, and even social time in between meetings is great for everyone to get on the same page and remember what’s working, what’s not, and what the world around us looks like as we dive into the deep end for another year.

Build a forward-looking agenda. The second step in having great board meetings is to set an agenda that will prompt the discussion that you want to have. With our current four-hour meetings, our time allocation is the following:

I. Welcomes and framing (5 minutes)

II. Official Business (no more than 15 minutes unless something big is going on)

III. Retrospective (45 minutes)

a. Target a short discussion on highlighted issues

b. Leave some time for Q&A

IV. On My Mind (2 hours)

a. You can spend this entire time on one topic, more than one, or all, as needed.

b. Format for discussions can vary—this is a good opportunity for breakout sessions, for example.

V. Executive Session (30 minutes)

This is your time with directors only, no observers or members of the management team (even if they are board members).

VI. Closed Session (30 minutes)

This is director-only time, without you or anyone else from the management team.

This agenda format focuses your meeting on the future, not the past. In the early years of the business, our board meetings were probably 75 percent “looking backwards” and 25 percent “looking forwards.” They were reporting meetings—reports which were largely in the hands of board members before the meetings anyway. They were dull as anything, and they were redundant: all of our board members were capable of processing historical information on their own. Today, our meetings are probably ten percent “looking backwards” and 90 percent “looking forwards”—and much more interesting as a result.

Separate background reading and presentation materials. Finally, focus on creating a more engaging dialogue during the meeting by separating background reading from presentation materials. In our early days, we created a huge Powerpoint deck as both a handout the week before the meeting and as the in-meeting deck. That didn’t create an engaging meeting.

There’s nothing more mind-numbing than a board meeting where the advance reading materials are lengthy Powerpoint presentations, than when the meeting itself is a series of team members standing up and going through the same slides, bullet by excruciating bullet—that attendees could read on their own.

When we separated the background and presentation materials, people were engaged by the Powerpoint—because it delivered fresh content. We started making the decks fun and engaging and colorful, as opposed to simple text and bullet slides. That was a step in the right direction, but the preparation consumed twice as much time for the management team, and we certainly didn’t get twice the value from it.

Now we send out a great set of comprehensive reading materials and reports ahead of the meeting, and then we have a completely Powerpoint-free meeting. No slides on the wall. This changes the paradigm away from a presentation—the whole concept of “management presenting to the board”—to an actual discussion. No checking email. No yawns. Nobody nodding off. Everyone—management and board—is highly engaged

Mar 062014

Open Vacation

At Return Path, we’ve had an “open vacation” policy for years, meaning that we don’t regulate the amount of time off people take, and we don’t accrue for it or pay out “unused” vacation if someone leaves the company.  I get asked about this all the time, so I thought I’d post our policy here and also answer a couple follow-up questions I usually get about it.

First, here’s the language of our policy:

Paid Time Off

You’re encouraged to take as much time off as you can while maintaining high performance and achieving your goals. We don’t count the hours you work, so why should we count the hours you don’t? (Unless you’re a non-exempt employee, and only then because we have to!) Take what you need, when you can, and make sure to arrange coverage with your team. If you haven’t had a vacation in a while, you can expect to get a friendly nudge from your manager to get away from the office!

Use your Paid Time Off (PTO) for planned vacations, days off for appointments, religious, or personal holidays that are not offered in your country, community service days, or if you need an unanticipated, last-minute day off to care for a sick child or family member. Statutory or legally protected leaves of absence, such as medical leave, maternity/parental leave, family medical leave or unpaid leave, are governed by separate regulations that will not be affected by our PTO policy. See the Regional section for a list of statutory leaves of absence in your country.

Paid Time Off scheduling is subject to approval by your manager, who has sole discretion to approve or deny requests under this policy. Requests of greater than two consecutive weeks or more than two weeks in one three-month period require approval of your Executive Committee member.

The first question I always get is, “Wow – does that really work?  What issues have you had with it?  My response:

No issues with it at all, other than it’s a little weird to apply internationally, where we have 50 people across 7 countries, since most of those countries have significantly more generous vacation policies/customs than the US.  But we generally make it work.

The second question I get is whether people abuse it or not:

In all the years we’ve done it, we only ever had one person attempt to abuse the policy, one time.  People do still have to ask their managers if it’s ok to take time off, and they do still have to get their jobs done.

Finally, people ask me for general advice on implementing this kind of policy:

Continue to track days off and generate reports for managers every quarter so they at least know whether their people are taking not enough or too much – generally people will take not enough, and you will need to encourage them to take more.  Also, our managers were *really* worried about launching this, so we had to do some hand-holding along the way. 

The results of this policy for us have generally been great.  People take about the same amount of true vacation they used to take, maybe a little more.  They definitely take more half-days and quarter-days where they probably still get a full day worth of work done, without worrying about counting the hours.  Best of all, there’s a strong signal sent and received with this kind of policy that we trust our team members to do what they need to do in order to live their lives AND get their jobs done.

Feb 132014

HR/People Lessons from Netflix

It feels as if almost everyone in our industry has read the famous Netflix culture deck on Slideshare, and with over 5mm views, that may not be too far off.  If you haven’t looked at it before, and if you care about your organization’s culture and how productive and happy employees are the best kind of employees, then take the time to flip through it.

As part of a benchmarking exercise we did on employers with unique and best HR/People practices a few years ago, a few of us did either site visits or at least live interviews with leaders at four companies, all of whom are pretty well known for progressive People practices that are also in-line with our company’s culture:  Morningstar, Gore, Nucor, and Netflix.  As part of this, we met in person with Patty McCord, Netflix’s long-time head of People.  It was a really informative meeting.

Now Patty has written a longform article in Harvard Business Review that shares a lot of what we learned from her in her office that day. It’s absolutely worth a read.  Netflix does have a pretty distinct culture and gets positive but mixed reviews on Glassdoor, so as with everything, I’m not advocating adopting everything they do lock, stock, and barrel.  But I can guarantee that some of the lessons that Patty shares are valuable no matter what your company is like.

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